Cape Town’s mild climate and rich soils provide an amazing range of produce for the city’s restaurants and a living for many.
When the first Dutch settlers arrived in Cape Town in 1652, they didn’t stop simply to take refuge in the natural bays that protect ships from the Indian Ocean on one side and the Atlantic on the other, or to admire Table Mountain, the towering flat table of rock that has become the overarching symbol of the city.
They came because they needed fresh supplies and Cape Town was eternally green. Its climate was ideal for growing fruit, vegetables and vines, its soils rich in minerals and water abundant, with fresh, cooling springs running down from the mountains. Once the sailors had stopped, seen and planted, they never wanted to leave. A new city was born.
Today, although many visitors to the area come for the beaches, seafood restaurants, ethnic crafts and Cape Dutch architecture, others come for the same reason that drew in the sailors: greenery. South Africa’s southernmost city has forests in which to hike, botanical gardens in which to picnic, vineyards in which to sip wine and fine produce that is at the heart of its award-winning restaurants (among them, The Test Kitchen, Rust en Vrede and Tasting Room, all listed in the top 100 in the world).
For most visitors, the first taste of the city’s produce will be in the varied dishes found in local restaurants, from Cape Malay curries and spicy samosas, to French nouvelle cuisine. However, another way of sampling the city’s many flavours is to go to the places where produce is grown and the markets where local food is sold.
In the impoverished township of Khayelitsha on the city’s outskirts there’s an organisation called Abalimi. The name means ‘the planters’ in Xhosa and the project was founded to cultivate unused land beneath power lines and use it to help women learn how to grow vegetables. Produce is now sold to Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel, where it features in Planet Restaurant alongside that of its own garden and greenhouse. The organisation also teaches communities how to conserve water and use waste to produce gas so they can cook hot meals.
James Fernie runs ethical tour company Uthando, which takes visitors into the township so they can experience its food, art and people. He says that visiting the vegetable project often moves visitors more than anything else. “Yes, they love seeing the children’s nursery and the arts organisations—they’re a fun part of our tour,” he says. “But seeing women creating nutritious meals for their communities from what was once barren land really gives them an insight into what can be achieved if people are given an opportunity.”
This is not the only project to use plants to link visitors and locals. When Sheryl Ozinsky, the former head of Cape Town Tourism, found a derelict field in the heart of the city’s affluent Oranjezicht suburb, it was filled, she says, with mattresses and detritus. She persuaded the council to give her the lease and set about converting it into the Oranjezicht City Farm, which is now run by men and women who were formerly homeless.
Today, it is a beautiful vegetable, flower and fruit garden that forms the heart of the area’s Saturday farmer’s market, where visitors nibble brownies, stock up on local food and wine, and buy gifts, enjoying a carnival atmosphere created by craftsmen, musicians and artists.
At The Old Biscuit Mill, the Saturday market takes place inside, but is full of the bounty of the land. Here, farmers, bakers, chefs, winemakers and chocolatiers ply Capetonians with delicacies. At 2pm, when the market closes, the customers move on to the surrounding Woodstock area to explore arts, crafts and cuisine. If you are visiting for a morning, you can continue on to a half-day tour of beach towns along the coast, or a wine tour of the nearby Constantia vineyards or even a trip to the beautiful Kirstenbosch Gardens.
More than any other spot in Cape Town, Kirstenbosch is a fitting end to a plant-and-food themed day. Ideal for a stroll, picnic or summer concert under the stars, it was the first garden to be protected by Unesco. Justly acclaimed as one of the finest botanical gardens on earth, it has lawns, forests, sculpture gardens and extensive flowerbeds.
To celebrate its centenary in 2014, a raised walkway was built above its trees. This timber canopy bridge is a wonderful place to stroll, soaking up the views. As you look out over foliage, mountains and, in the distance, the sea, it’s like being taken back to a time to when the Dutch East India Company arrived—and all it could see was green.
Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel offers half- and full-day tours to the major wine trails, as well as specific red, white and Cap Classique tours. A day out at the Spice Route, with the opportunity to discover unique produce by local artisans, is also highly recommended.
by Lisa Grainger, Photographs: Alice Notten; Fiona Macpherson/Oranjezicht; courtesy of Oranjezicht city farm